WAY OUT THERE IN THE BLUE: REAGAN, STAR WARS AND THE END OF THE COLD WAR By Frances FitzGerald Simon & Schuster 592 pp., $30
Ronald Reagan was America's first Hollywood president, but he is unlikely to be the last. Politics is theater, image, and emotion - to an extent that often makes moralists and policy wonks uncomfortable.
This biography grew out of Frances FitzGerald's interest "in the appeal Reagan had for the American public and the direct connection he made to the national imagination." She writes, "To study his rhetoric and political persona is to learn much about this country, and in particular about the myths, traditions and stories that sustain us and color our thinking about the world."
No element of his presidency brings all these together better than his advocacy of "star wars" - a space shield to protect the United States from incoming ballistic missiles. The title of this book, by the way, for all its aeronautical shimmer, comes from a description of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's play "Death of a Salesman": "He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine."
Ronald Reagan, the "great communicator," was indeed a salesman - in the case of star wars, for a product that hadn't been invented yet. That he was an actor for whom life often aped movies has been well documented. But FitzGerald shows how the great communicator was also a preacher of sorts - well grounded in two strong theological traditions that have been influential in the American heartland: a "premillennial" worldview, that would interpret the cold war with the "evil empire" as a sign of "last times," and also a "post-millennial" tradition of rebirth and renewal - into which a world free of nuclear threat would fit beautifully.
As FitzGerald ably demonstrates, star wars was an expression of both sides of Reagan's persona - the staunch anticommunist but also the smiling herald of "morning in America," offering to share space-shield technology with the Russians.
Where star wars lost the public was where it became clear that it would not be the promised impenetrable shield protecting all humanity but rather a technology that could - maybe - protect some of the US nuclear arsenal. In other words, the feasible part of star wars was only the cold-war part, and by the mid-1980s, the American public just wasn't fretting about the Soviet threat.
Taken on its own, the story of star wars, or the Strategic Defense Initiative, to use its dry official name, can also be told as the story of a bad idea that refuses to die. In the story of the emperor's new clothes, once the boy says that the emperor is in fact naked, everyone agrees that this is so. But the star wars project has been subjected to several debunkings, any one of which should have been definitive, without sinking.
FitzGerald relates how in 1985, a delegation of Senate staffers visited major SDI installations across the country to hear directly from scientists working there whether they saw the great progress that star wars advocates back in Washington had been reporting. "To their surprise the answer was a resounding 'no.' Instead of lobbying for their projects, the scientists scoffed at the exaggerations coming out of Washington and expressed concern that the hype would undermine their credibility and create a backlash against the program as a whole."
Yet 15 years and two changes of administration later, billions are still being spent on missile defense systems.
This book is also a case study of how a presidential administration works, or doesn't, and a reminder that statecraft is practiced by human beings - very human beings.
FitzGerald presents the story of a group of unquestionably intelligent, accomplished men who nonetheless had trouble talking with one another, didn't pursue thoughts to the end, and got almost no direction from the president. Reagan had an intense dislike of what he saw as staff bickering, and preferred to stick to the schedule, as if "Mr. Reagan Goes to Washington" were a movie he was shooting.
This well-written book packs a lot into its 500 pages. It has far more laugh-out-loud anecdotes than a reader has any right to expect from a tome as full of arms-control jargon as this one necessarily is. It even has chortlesome footnotes.
*Ruth Walker is the Monitor's correspondent in Toronto.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society